After a federal judge in Florida determined that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful on Monday, April 18, the Biden administration would no longer enforce the US mask mandate on public transportation, effectively ending a key White House effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.
United Airlines and Alaska Airlines quickly lifted the restrictions on all domestic flights after the announcement.
President Donald Trump’s appointee, US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, issued the verdict in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a nonprofit called the Health Freedom Defense Fund.
Judge Mizelle ruled that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had overstepped its bounds with the requirement, had failed to seek public input, and had failed to fully explain its decisions.
The court’s decision meant the CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in place, according to a US administration official. While the agencies assessed potential next moves, the court’s decision meant the CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration might yet file an appeal or request an emergency stay of the order’s implementation.
“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the official said in a statement.
“CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”
The decision comes as COVID-19 infections in the United States are on the rise again, with 36,251 new infections recorded on average every day and 460 daily deaths based on a seven-day average — the highest number of total COVID-19 deaths reported anywhere in the world.
The ruling was described as “disappointing” by the White House.
Last week, US health officials announced that the ban forcing travelers to wear masks on planes, trains, taxis, ride-share vehicles, and transportation hubs will be extended for another 15 days, claiming the need to study the impact of a recent increase in COVID-19 cases.
Last week, industry organizations and Republican politicians pushed for the administration to stop the 14-month-old mask regulation.
On Monday, United Airlines announced that masks are no longer required on domestic and certain foreign flights, as well as at US airports. Face masks are now optional on Alaska Airlines flights.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) both declined to comment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declined to comment.
In February 2021, the CDC issued the first public health order requiring masks in interstate transportation. To enforce the CDC mandate, the TSA issued a security directive.
According to the FAA, there have been a total of 7,060 unruly passenger occurrences reported since January 2021, with 70% of them involving masking regulations.
Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, recommended “calm and consistency in airports and on planes” following the decision. “Confusion and instability are the last things we need today for frontline staff and passengers.”
Airlines for America, which represents major US passenger airlines, said after the announcement they are “strong advocates for eliminating pandemic-era policies and are encouraged by the lifting of the federal transportation mask mandate.”
Last month, the US Senate voted 57-40 to overturn a public health directive requiring masks on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, prompting President Joe Biden to threaten a veto.